4 Powerful Skills PhDs Have And Employers Crave

The number of PhDs wanting to transition out of academia increases every year.

Initially, most of these PhDs were recent graduates and postdocs. 

But as the crisis in academia has gotten worse, we are seeing a lot of adjunct and even tenured professors wanting to leave.

They feel professionally unfulfilled in academic positions because they are overworked, work in uninspiring roles, and/or are paid marginal academic stipends, fellowships, and wages. 

Far too many PhDs are unable to find any meaning or joy in their academic careers, which negatively impacts both their professional and personal lives.

Unfortunately, many of these PhDs end up staying in academia for the wrong reasons.

They either believe the academic myth that you are a sell out if you leave, or get scared of the unknown and convince themselves that they are not valuable in industry.

Recently, a member of the Cheeky Scientist Association shared the following story after being hired in their dream position:


Grad-students: look beyond anything your advisor, committee members, or program chair tells you and find out what policies at the graduate college or institutional level might protect you if you need to change labs. You have leverage if you need to negotiate with your training program PI or grad-chair: you may be hard to fire outright and it looks bad for them if people leave the program. Post-docs: decent PIs exist, new investigators and people with new-funding have a hard time finding personnel on a short timeline: a few of them are willing to sponsor a visa and ignore a non-recommendation from your current boss. Coming from a difficult academic situation, this was a major source of stress for me, and I know it is for others here. My PhD advisor had told me he was against the whole concept of professional publication writers. I was asked for two business references after receiving my offer: I gave my postdoc supervisor and a colleague from grad-school.  The company was fine with this. So yes, you can transition with absolutely nothing from your PhD supervisor.

If you have a PhD, you are valuable in industry. Stop listening to academics who know nothing about life outside the ivory tower and commit to your transition so you can build a better future for yourself.

If You Want To Transition, You Need To Understand The Industry Landscape

Many PhDs who want to transition into industry falsely believe that their lack of post-PhD industry experience negates them from consideration for top industry roles.

This false belief is associated with Imposter Syndrome. This affection, which is especially common among high achievers, convinces PhDs that they can’t be successful in industry.

In reality, one of the biggest problems that PhDs face is a lack of training on how to get a job outside of academia. 

After all, most PhDs have spent decades – the entirety of their professional careers – in academia. They only know the academic milieu and have no idea how things work in an industry setting.

This lack of knowledge prevents them from realizing that the biggest reason they are not transitioning is not lack of industry experience but not understanding the way things work in industry. 

Data don’t lie, PhDs, no matter their background, can excel at a number of top positions and can get hired even without previous experience.

One of the main reasons why PhDs are valuable in industry is that they possess transferable skills that employers across industries are constantly looking for.

However, because of their academic training and lack of industry knowledge, PhDs are not familiar with the value of transferable skills. 

So, in the rare cases when they get the attention of an industry employer, they end up burning the bridge by focusing the conversation on their technical skills.

4 Top Transferable Skills That PhDs Should Communicate To Employers

PhDs often think that the technical or specialty skills that they developed in academia are their biggest asset when they start planning an industry transition.

But in industry, technical skills are irrelevant. These are either performed by robots or technicians. Or can be taught through standardized training in a matter of days.

PhD-level jobs in industry rely on the combination of several transferable skills, which are more relevant for leadership positions and more difficult to teach.

PhDs can correctly identify problems, prioritize the right problem, and then find the right answer to that problem.

In other words, they possess the top three desired transferable skills for industry positions according to several Surveys of Global 500 employers: critical thinking, complex problem solving, and correct decision-making.

The fourth skill that makes PhDs stand out from other candidates is their ability to thrive under uncertainty. This is an indispensable component of innovation.

Below, I will discuss each of these skills. How you have developed them as a PhD. Why you need to communicate them to industry employers and employees if you want to transition out of academia.

1. Critical thinking

Critical thinking is the disciplined process of evaluating different sources of information and using them to guide complex decisions.

Does this sound like something you are familiar with?

As a PhD, you have spent years trying to find answers to the world’s toughest unknown questions.

You know how to evaluate an immense amount of information. Whether it comes from your experiments, journal articles, or book references. Or to help you advance your research or at least prove some minute aspect of your overall hypothesis.

You have also learned to ponder that information, to be critical about it so you can make unbiased decisions.

Think about the way that you carefully evaluate every decision you make in your research –  from what sources to cite to what tools to use to who to suggest as a reviewer for a submitted manuscript.

According to Indeed, critical thinking adds value to the workplace in different ways. Including bolstering the knowledge economy and improving decision making.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming critical thinking is a trivial skill. Not any employee can analyze and use information to guide their decision making process the way you do.

Consider the following: 27% of the population haven’t even started to read a book, paper or electronic, in the past year.

Do you really think those people can even start dreaming about analyzing information as fast and as accurately as you do?

2. Complex problem solving

As a PhD, you are unrivaled in your ability to troubleshoot.

Your PhD project almost certainly had roadblocks and bumps along the way that you had to overcome.

Every time you discovered a problem, this was not a sign that you should quit. Rather it was an opportunity to discover something new.

Working at the edge of a field means that you must exercise complex problem-solving. Because you are encountering brand new problems that nobody has faced before all the time.

But this skill is not only about solving the problem at hand. Know how to prioritize when faced with several problems.

Being able to look at a complex situation. Knowing how to prioritize the different problems that span from it can save a company precious time and money.

Again, don’t think this is a trivial skill. You’d be amazed about the amount of people who freeze when a problem comes up.

3. Correct decision making

The people who get promoted in industry the fastest are those who know how to make a decision.

Unlike academia, the world of industry moves fast. There is no time to second-guess yourself.

You must know how to think on your feet and make decisions quickly. But not any decisions, the right decisions.

A rushed decision, taken without considering all the data available, can cost a company millions of dollars.

This is why decision making is worth nothing without critical thinking and complex problem solving.

Lucky for you, you have extensive training integrating these three skills on a daily basis.

You have had to troubleshoot on the fly, integrating all the information available, and making the best decision possible.

You also know that you have to take responsibility for your decisions. This is extremely important and valuable in industry.

Many people are just afraid of the responsibility that comes with making a decision. They are either unable to make decisions or, worse, to take responsibility for their decisions.

4. Ability to thrive under uncertainty

If you have a PhD or are getting one, you’ve probably spent years of your life smacked in the middle of uncertainty. 

Whether it is when your next grant is going to be funded, when your paper is going to make it past that third reviewer, or when your committee is going to give you the green light to defend your thesis.

This might not always be comfortable, but you have learned to deal with it. Sometimes you even thrive because of it.

You have come to understand that the only way of pushing the boundaries of knowledge is by accepting that uncertainty is part of creation.

Most people don’t understand this relationship. This gives you a huge advantage when it comes to transitioning into industry.

In industry, it’s not publish or perish, it’s innovate or die. And innovation is not possible without uncertainty.

I can tell you most job candidates really struggle with this. They need an absolute guarantee that things will work out the way they want before they’ll work hard. 

As a PhD, You don’t. 

You just need to know what’s possible. Maybe have a sense of autonomy. Know that you’re going after something that’s going to have a bigger impact on humanity.

That gives you a huge advantage over other candidates.

Concluding Remarks

If you have a PhD or are on your way to having one, you can transition into industry. You can have the professional lifestyle you’ve always wanted. You just need to commit to your transition. Understand that your value doesn’t lie on technical skills, but on transferable skills. Make sure to communicate your ability to think critically, solve complex problems, make the right decisions, and wrangle uncertainty. Do it every time you have the opportunity to talk to an industry employer. This will show them not only that you are valuable, but that you understand where your value lies.

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists. Apply to book a Transition Call here.

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Isaiah Hankel, PhD
Isaiah Hankel, PhD Chief Executive Officer at Cheeky Scientist

Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of the largest career training platform for PhDs in the world - Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by 3 million PhDs in 152 different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Hankel has published two bestselling books with Wiley and his methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

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